Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that make the most fun. A slide, for example, requires just two actions: climb up, slide down. Brilliant.
In Ghost Town Games’ Overcooked -- a game about being a chef in a single-player or cooperative space -- you’re left with similarly simple ideas: move and ‘action’, with your action being anything from cutting onions to cooking meat patties, before constructing a plate for your hungry diners, all done with the same button on your controller. Serve it at the pass -- in a decent amount of time -- and you’ll be rewarded. But while this simplicity makes for an uncomplicated gameplay experience on paper, in that almost anyone can play Overcooked, what you might not be ready for is the piles and piles of pressure that comes with this simplicity, and responsibility.
It doesn’t take long before you’re cutting onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, lettuce and meat, prepping burger buns, cooking soups and burger patties, constructing and plating the food and cleaning returned plates in the sink, all while trying to stay on top of the piles of tickets coming out in the short time allotted to you to earn as many stars as you can.
The above is coupled with unique levels, too. The game is never straightforward and you will find yourself on ships at sea that move your cooking stations in unique ways; on slippery ice sheets in the freezing cold; cooking on the street having to move in and out of foot traffic, while managing the above. The concept is so simple, but its execution and anxiety-inducing gameplay timeframe is near criminal. But you won’t want to ever stop playing, and before you know it, your house will have descended into some sort of Hell’s Kitchen rip-off with each and every one of you adopting your best (and worst) Gordon Ramsey impression, strictly on impulse.
The difficult part of Overcooked is that it honestly really can’t be played without at least three people. It hosts up to four players, and while this becomes manageable, the adage of “too many cooks in the kitchen” more often than not rears its head. It’s a brilliant piece of design where the game can’t possibly be beaten without friends (or other players), but working together can quickly melt you all into a hot multiplayer mess (you even have a button for expressing your frustration at other players). The impediment isn’t controls or moving levels, it’s not the tickets or making complex pizzas, it’s managing your staff and working out who really rules this kitchen, and which kitchen rules you’re all willing to follow.
That said, the aforementioned levels are designed to split you up. The game divides and conquers you
, not the other way around. And this quickly resets any gameplans you and your team might have had and you’ll find yourselves chaotically yelling at one another, desperately attempting to arrest control of the game. But it’s unwavering in its player spite, forcing you back again and again so as not to be beaten by making a simple fucking mushroom soup.
There’s a wafer-thin plot behind this multiplayer masterpiece that sees you as unprepared chefs incapable of satiating the hunger of The Beast -- a giant spaghetti and meatballs monstrosity that is set to launch hunger Armageddon, if you can’t shake off his ‘hanger’. So, for whatever reason, you travel back in time to the 90s in order to build your skills up before once again taking on The Beast (after a few jumps in time and across different themed levels). Throughout your time-travel journey, you move across a largely uninteresting overworld map in a bus that can drive on water, apparently. But the map only serves as a tool to move to the next cooking location and challenge, or to go back to any previously attempted stage to perform well enough to earn its coveted three stars. And stars are your progress currency in the game, with later levels requiring higher numbers of them, forcing you back to incomplete stages.
With friends and others, the game is just so challenging and fun, with very little by way of complication, that it’s as visceral an experience as they come. If you don’t have any friends, you can attempt the game on your own, and on a controller you can even split controls -- because the inputs are so basic -- and attempt to control two chefs at once, but I suspect most of you don’t want to invoke coronary problems. Especially when you’re on your own. It would have been good for a single-player portion of the game with more forgiving time-limits, to allow you the chance to serve up more than the one-to-three dishes you’re likely going to be able to do, to be presented, but in its place there is a Versus mode that has you and up to three others no longer working wholly together (two a side or one vs one) challenging for culinary bragging rights.
At just $20-odd dollars on consoles and Steam, and with so much replayability with friends, it’s hard to go past this charming little indie title. It’s as simple as they come in terms of what you need to do, but actually doing
it is an entirely other thing and you’ll find yourself wanting to wave your cleaver at your teammates in pure, ecstatic frustration, such is the sum of its basic ingredients.
Overcooked is best shared with friends, and served with your choice of wine or beer. Or cordial, depending on your age. Definitely worth a seat at the gaming table.